Changing Planes in Houston | California | Living in Mexico

Changing Planes in Houston

If you play your frequent flyer upgrades and credit card premiums right, you get to use Continental's President's Club while you're waiting for your next flight. The main advantages of this are: free diet cokes, and a wi-fi hot spot so you can check email, surf, and update your blog. Which I'm doing right now.

To get to San Francisco from San Miguel, your main option is through Houston. There used to be a direct flight to Oakland, on the other side of San Francisco Bay. Maybe there still is. But it's a redeye, sometimes it makes a stop in Zacatecas, and it terminates in... um... Oakland. I'd rather leave home at 9 AM, spend more time in transit, and wind up someplace I wanna be. Going to California is an all-day affair any way you approach it. Might as well do it in comfort.

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Continental sent me an email, offering me the option to check in online. I bit, and clicked the link. Eight pages later, after making entries in several fields and clicking various buttons, I got a page that said I couldn't get my boarding passes online because the Guanajuato Airport doesn't allow online check-in. Boy, did I feel like a dummy! Trying to check in online from BJX! Duh!

Now, wait a minute. Didn't I just say that Continental sent me an email asking me to check in online? They want me to cooperate with them in this because it saves them money. But... somewhere in their system, they know that Guanajuato will not permit online check-in, because their computer served me a web page saying so. So why the hell don't they just implement a little program branch that says, "If the passenger is leaving from Guanajuato, don't bother sending him a check-in email, because it's just gonna piss him off."

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Things have gone from bad to worse with luggage allowances. Some time ago, most airlines made a new rule restricting checked luggage to two pieces per passenger, neither weighing more than 50 lbs. (A far cry from the days when we carried 24 MacIntosh computers to Moscow as checked baggage, no questions asked.) You could get around the rule by paying $20 for an overweight bag. Sometimes, it was worth it.

But in the fine print, Continental warns you that at certain times of year, they won't accept overweight bags at any price, and we learned today that this restriction was now in effect. But in effect only in Guanajuato!

The check-in agents were strictly enforcing the new rule, causing in a huge back-up at the desk. Seems like everyone had overweight bags. Sometimes by ten or twelve pounds, sometimes by less than a pound. No matter. Overweight? You had to do something about it.

It was amazing. Ahead of me, a woman had her open bag on the scale. She'd managed to get six pounds of stuff transferred from her checked luggage to her carry-on. The gate agent said, "You've got another pound to go." She jammed some more stuff into her hand baggage. The agent said, "Whoah. Whoah! That's enough!"

I may have been witnessing the first regulation in Mexico ever precisely and honestly enforced. No mordida. No letting anyone slide for a few ounces.

Of course, the question is, Why? Why 50 lbs? Why only Guanajuato?

It's not like baggage handlers can't move heavy bags. They've been doing it for years. Does it have to do with some limitation of the aircraft? Maybe the runway is a little short in Guanajuato, and a full plane can't take off with too much baggage? But then why does everyone get to shuffle their stuff from bag to bag. The plane winds up taking off with the same weight on board.

I'll never understand airlines.

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I visited the men's room next to Gate #3. The screen in the bottom of the urinal was advertising a deli. The slogan said, "Aaaaah. ¡Que Rico!"—"How Delicious!" What genius came up with that? Many years ago, I saw a urinal screen in a bowling alley in San Mateo, CA, that said, "Artistry in Plastics." Until today, that one was the record holder for stupidity.

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Between most neighboring countries in the world, things look pretty much the same on either side of the border. This is definitely not so at the Mexican border, and you can readily see it from the air. In Tamaulipas just south of the Rio Grande, the land is sere, taupe-colored desert, a few scattered dusty towns, and narrow highways with no traffic. Just across the river in Texas, orderly green irrigated fields, prosperous communities and busy freeways define the landscape. It's startling the first time you see it. How is it possible that the same biosphere can look so different on either side of such a thin line?

Of course, what we're seeing is not so much an environmental difference as one of wealth. In 2004, the Mexican per capita income was $6,770. In the U. S., it was $41,400, six times as much. When you're poor, you can't afford to develop, to pave roads, to irrigate. You can see it at the border from the air: The color of money is green.

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